Russia’s decision not to attend the 2016 Nuclear Security Summit is based on concerns that the U.S. is trying to take a more aggressive role in limiting the maneuvering room of legitimate nuclear powers.

U.S. President Barack Obama, right, and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte speak during the closing nwes conference of the Nuclear Security Summit in The Hague March 25, 2014. Photo: Reueters

Russia's refusal to participate in the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, D.C. at the end of March fundamentally changes the nature of U.S.-Russia relations. The interaction between Moscow and Washington has always been strained, and the past five to seven years have been marked by military and political crises.

However, in spite of all their differences, the Kremlin and the White House kept claiming that they would never stop cooperating in two areas: counter-terrorism and nonproliferation. Of course, Russia and the U.S. disagreed on the Iranian, Indian, and North Korean nuclear programs. Still, both sides declared their dedication to strengthening non-proliferation regulations, which made for a limited, but workable agenda for cooperation.

Last year, the dynamics changed. The idea of a "joint fight against terrorism" appears to have died over U.S.-Russia differences over Syria. Now it is starting to look like joint efforts on non-proliferation are following suit. Russia and the U.S. seem to be losing their last opportunities for stabilization.

What can be done to curb nuclear terrorism?

The idea to counter "nuclear terrorism" has been a key part of U.S. foreign policy over the past 12 years. After the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001, the administration of former U.S. President George W. Bush created a global anti-terrorist coalition. In the winter of 2003, the coalition broke up over the U.S.-British intervention in Iraq, leaving the big question of what could bring world powers together again. The Republican administration chose the joint fight against "nuclear terrorism" to guide the new global agenda.

Up to this day, we have never encountered "nuclear terrorism." Nevertheless, the media spread rumors about the leakage of nuclear technologies from the former Soviet Union, Pakistan, North Korea and even the EU, but not a single case of nuclear theft has been confirmed. In 2004, the Bush administration used scare tactics by stating that the Taliban was about to gain access to Pakistan's nuclear arsenal. Realistically, there is no indication of the Taliban trying to infiltrate Pakistani nuclear objects or conducting military operations in their proximity.

Still, on February 11, 2004, former President Bush delivered his keynote address on non-proliferation at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C. In the address, he presented three theses on fighting nuclear terrorism.

First, Bush said, it is necessary to limit the supply of nuclear technologies to non-nuclear states or at least those countries that failed to create their own nuclear power generation industry by January 1, 2004. Second, all countries should abandon the use of "sensitive" technologies, i.e. heavy water reactors and highly enriched uranium-based fuel. Third, Bush proposed that the informal World Nuclear Association acquire the status of a UN institution and exercise control over the international uranium mining market and nuclear fuel production. As an aside, the structure of the World Nuclear Association mirrors the structure of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

Over the next several years, U.S. diplomats tried to implement these initiatives. At the G8 summits, Americans tried to persuade other countries to sign a joint moratorium on supplying nuclear fuel to countries that had not obtained it by 2004. Simultaneously, Washington was working on the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP). It was meant to serve as the platform for creating international uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing centers.

Read Q&A with Russia’s Permanent Representative in Vienna: "Don't read too much into Russia's absence at Nuclear Security Summit"

America also tried to popularize the World Nuclear Association. In 2005, the organization's website became a virtual goldmine for those wanting to study the natural uranium and reactor fuel market. Carnegie Foundation experts also discussed a more promising agreement involving a universal renunciation of highly enriched uranium and heavy water reactors.

By the time Obama entered the White House, all these initiatives had failed because other countries were of a different opinion on limiting nuclear energy production. But in his Prague speech of April 5, 2009, Obama tried to revive the idea by calling for global nuclear disarmament. The International Nuclear Security Summit was created to promote the initiative and provide a new negotiation format, its official purpose being countering nuclear terrorism. Instead of creating an organization that would serve as an alternative to the IAEA, Obama's administration arranged for an alternative negotiation site.

The internationalization of the nuclear fuel cycle

Thus, fighting "nuclear terrorism" implied the internationalization of the nuclear fuel cycle. This idea has a long history in American politics. Back in December 1945 at the Moscow Conference of Foreign Ministers, representatives of the U.S., Soviet Union and Great Britain agreed on the creation of the United Nations Atomic Energy Commission. In March 1946, then-U.S. President Harry Truman's administration unveiled the Acheson-Lilienthal Plan that stipulated international control over nuclear fuel cycle and the elimination of atomic weapons in five to six years.

Initially, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin approved of the plan, but in the spring of 1946, Bernard Baruch, the U.S. representative to the U.N. Atomic Energy Commission, introduced two amendments.

First, the decisions in the future international body shall occur by a simple majority vote, and the right of veto of the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council shall not apply.

Second, the new institution, bypassing the approval of the U.N. Security Council, shall approve measures of enforcement against violators. On June 14, 1946, the U.S. introduced Baruch's plan to the U.N. Atomic Energy Commission, but this time the U.S.S.R. rejected the Americans' suggestions. Moscow was wary of U.S. attempts to hamper the creation of the Soviet atomic bomb.

Also read: "Nonproliferation requires more cooperation between Russia, the West"

Indeed, there is a clear correlation between the U.S. initiatives on the internationalization of the nuclear fuel cycle and Baruch's 1946 plan. Both involve partial denationalization of nuclear power, including uranium mining. Both stipulate the creation of de facto U.S.-run international centers for monitoring "sensitive" stages of the nuclear fuel cycle. Both aim at reducing the resource base for nuclear warhead manufacturing. Both suggest stronger repressive measures against "dangerous" regimes (as defined by Washington). Both were met with sceptisim by other nuclear powers, especially Russia.

What is Moscow's problem?

Moscow’s problem today is exactly the same problem of the Soviet Union back in 1946. Nuclear weapons have a limited service life. They need to be updated every 10-15 years, and fissionable materials in nuclear warheads should be regenerated even more frequently, which requires a complete nuclear fuel cycle and a sufficient quantity of fissionable materials. The absence of both components at some point will render a full nuclear potential update impossible. Naturally, the Russian authorities have no desire to undermine their ability to perform such updates.

Russia is interested in nuclear disarmament talks in the IAEA format. IAEA benefits nuclear powers because it does not control them, but monitors non-nuclear powers. The emergence of another "nuclear organization" like the World Nuclear Association or the Nuclear Security Summit will result in stronger interference in the nuclear policies of legitimate nuclear powers. It would be much easier to prevent it from being formed as opposed to having to strike down its initiatives later.

In 1946, Stalin was particularly concerned with the clause that granted the U.N. Atomic Energy Commission the right to punish violators without the approval of the U.N. Security Council. Americans could very well imply that the Soviet Union was one of the "violators."

In the past twelve years, U.S. international policy involved a series of attempts at the forcible disarmament of regimes that Washington deemed dangerous. So who will vouch for the new organization and guarantee that it is not going to introduce repressive measures using the fight against "nuclear terrorism" as an excuse? Just like 70 years ago, the question remains unanswered.

As for Russia, it took the Nuclear Security Summit seriously only as a place for negotiations between the two countries. In 2012, the Summit was meant to maintain at least some kind of dialogue on arms control. Since then, Moscow and Washington froze bilateral strategic talks, and it does not look like they will get renewed any time soon. Thus, it is hardly surprising that Russia does not want to participate in negotiations that are so beneficial to the U.S.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.